How Brexit could unravel one of Bill Clinton’s most historic achievements – Washington Post
Experts have warned about the dangers of the isolationist impulses coursing through global politics. But the consequences are only beginning to emerge. Thanks to President Trump’s disinterest in the world beyond the United States, and a shortsighted power play by British Prime Minister Theresa May, we may soon see a vivid illustration of isolationism’s consequences in Northern Ireland — one that unravels one of Bill Clinton’s most historic achievements.
In February 1994, President Bill Clinton ignored the adamant wishes of America’s closest ally, the United Kingdom, and issued Gerry Adams, leader of the Irish Republican Army’s political party Sinn Fein, a U.S. visa. Clinton gave Adams legitimacy, and increased his ability to bring the “hard gunmen” of the IRA to the peace table.
About 21 months later, in November 1995, Clinton visited Northern Ireland. He toured the country and met with Protestants and Roman Catholics, who were struggling to emerge from decades of violence. It was the first such visit by a sitting U.S. president, indicative of the political capital Clinton was willing to spend on the country’s fledgling peace process.
Noting his own “Ulster Scot” heritage, Clinton mused that throughout U.S. history, Irish Catholics and Protestants “have built our nation.” In return, Clinton pledged that as long as both communities worked to build a lasting peace, “the United States of America will proudly stand with you.”
Clinton followed this promise by dispatching Sen. George Mitchell (D-Maine) to negotiate the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998 — a document that still guides the political institutions in Northern Ireland and has led to a lasting, if tenuous, peace.
Clinton’s historic accomplishment demonstrates the benefits of global engagement. But today it is in serious jeopardy, because the domestic politics driving Trump and May dictate a reckless course with serious ramifications in Northern Ireland.
After her party’s disastrous showing in June’s snap election, May promised a government of “certainty.” She insisted “that only the Conservative and Unionist Party has the legitimacy and ability to provide that certainty by commanding a majority in the House of Commons.”
The what party?
May’s baffling reference to the “Conservative and Unionist Party” was, in part, a savvy attempt to normalize the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the small Northern Irish party allowing her to keep her job. But it also demonstrates her willingness to abandon Britain’s role as one of the honest brokers in Northern Ireland’s peace process to keep her job.
The party’s official title, the Conservative and Unionist Party, harks back to the “Home Rule Crisis” before World War I. Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom, but the results of the 1910 election had left the Liberal Party with a hung Parliament and in need of a coalition partner — just like Britain today.
In that case, Liberals latched onto the Irish Parliamentary Party. To coax their 77 members of Parliament to the bargaining table, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith promised Irish Home Rule — a watered-down version of independent governance.
Ulster Protestants, the unionists in northern Ireland who wished to remain part of the United Kingdom and opposed home rule, panicked. They anointed Edward Carson, a dour Dublin-born lawyer who had risen to prominence as a quick-witted, emotional speaker, as their party leader. Carson campaigned against home rule, culminating with Ulster Day, an elaborate ceremony in which 500,000 Ulster men and women signed the “Solemn League and Covenant” pledging to resist home rule “using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy.”
Ulster Protestants’ paranoia offered English Conservatives an electoral opportunity. If the Liberals had the Irish Parliamentary Party as a partner, shouldn’t the Conservatives have their own Irish plaything?
Andrew Bonar Law, the Conservative Party leader, thought so. In June 1912, he discovered that rhetoric — such as there is “no length of resistance to which Ulster will go in which I shall not be ready to support them” — could exhilarate crowds. This pledge helped transform the Conservative Party into the Conservative & Unionist Party of Great Britain.
Carson and Bonar Law campaigned together, promising to resist home rule by any means necessary. Ulster Unionists implemented this pledge, ignoring the constitution with impunity, culminating with the 1914 smuggling of 25,000 rifles into Ulster from Germany — a deliberately provocative act considering Germany was Britain’s largest rival, and only months from being its enemy.
Although the outbreak of World War I averted an all-out civil war, it did not prevent sectarian violence from descending on Ulster during the Irish struggle for independence from Britain or the partition of the island into North and South.
Northern Ireland emerged from the insanity of political violence that terrorized the country between 1969 and 1998. In 1998, Unionists and Nationalists acknowledged the other’s right to hold political views anathema to their own, thanks to honest brokers such as Britain and the United States.
Subsequently, Britain operated as an outside referee, decidedly neutral, to ensure that both sides abided by their agreements and protected the rights of all citizens.
That neutrality, however, is now in serious jeopardy. A power-sharing government in Northern Ireland broke down last year. The fight was ostensibly over a funding scheme controversy, but the identity politics of Brexit, brimming with conflict over immigration, trade and national meaning, loomed large.
And that brings us back to May and the DUP. Brexit divides Northern Ireland. The DUP championed “leave” while Sinn Fein, along with 56 percent of Northern Irish voters, voted “remain.” The day after the referendum, Sinn Fein opportunistically began raising the specter of Irish reunification.
Both sides blew past a June 29 deadline to reach an agreement, and neither side appears willing to compromise its demands. Absent that, Northern Ireland would confront the prospect of direct rule from Westminster by a DUP-backed Tory government. It’s no wonder many are skeptical of the British government’s ability to remain an honest broker.
What does the future hold for Northern Ireland, the border between North and South, or May’s Conservative government? No one knows.
Considering President Trump’s vocal support for Brexit, his decidedly isolationist approach to foreign policy and his deep unpopularity abroad, it seems highly unlikely the United States has the power or will to ensure Northern Ireland’s continued stability. But, one thing is certain: May’s reference to the “Conservative and Unionist Party” is an echo of the disastrous Conservative policy that enabled political violence in Ulster, and a constitutional crisis nearly a century ago.
Sadly, the legacy of that constitutional crisis and the narrow, nationalistic politics that drove it continue to haunt the political realities of the present. Northern Ireland provides a cautionary note against embracing nationalism at the expense of globalism — it threatens to upend peace.